Latin Jazz Conversations: Pete Escovedo (Part 3)
Any Latin Jazz scene with an established tradition carries an identifiable sound," a clear aural representation of the culture and values held by the area's musical community. The area's sound" rises from the combination of musical choices prioritized by the musicians on the scene and the continued support for a group of musical ideas. Individuals certainly play a part in the development of this sound, but it's really a collective effort that relies upon interaction of a large community of musicians. The individuals that play an important part in an area's sound" are the ones that foster the sharing of creative ideas. The band leaders that hire young aspiring musicians, bring them together into a creative environment, and share their knowledge may not be single-handedly responsible for the sound" but they enable it to evolve. Their music becomes forever associated with the area and they stand as important artists in the music's history.
Percussionist Pete Escovedo explored a number of musical ideas during his long career and became a primary figure in the creation of the West Coast Latin Jazz sound. Inspired to pursue music as a young person, Escovedo became a regular figure on the Bay Area's lively Latin music scene during the fifties. He formed the Escovedo Brothers Band along with his siblings Coke and Phil, making a name throughout the area and building a reputation as a reliable band leader. Guitarist Carlos Santana recruited both Pete and Coke in the early seventies, taking the musicians onto a world stage as part of the Latin Rock phenomenon. Still wishing to make their own mark upon the music world, Pete and Coke formed their own band, Azteca, a large ensemble that employed some of the Bay Area's finest musicians. The group brought together Afro-Cuban rhythms, funk, jazz, and rock in an appealing and organic way, but the financial realities of a big band soon ended the group. Fusion drummer Billy Cobham recruited Escovedo and his daughter Sheila for a recording and in return produced two albums for the duo. As Sheila embarked on her own career, Escovedo gathered a group of strong young musicians from the Bay Area and formed his own Latin Jazz ensemble. After recording two CDs, Concord Records signed Escovedo onto their roster and distributed his music around the world. As the Bay Area's rising Latin Jazz stars like Wayne Wallace, John Santos, Rebeca Mauleon, and more worked their way through Escovedo's band, it became an important simmering pot for the Bay Area sound. At the turn of the millennium, Escovedo moved to Los Angeles, utilizing musicians from both the Bay Area and Los Angeles while keeping a high profile performance schedule. As Escovedo hits 75 years this week, he shows no signs of stopping, letting his drive to perform carry the West Coast Latin Jazz sound around the world.
Escovedo's vast experiences gave him the tools to combine different musical ideas into a recognizable sound, working with musicians from both the Bay Area and Los Angeles to make this a reality. We've covered the early days of Escovedo's career and his exploration of varied approaches over the past couple of days. In Part One of our interview with Escovedo, we looked at his early exposure to music, his leap into percussion, and his work on the Bay Area's strong Latin music scene during the fifties. Part Two of our interview with Escovedo delved into his time with Santana, the formation of Azteca, his albums with Sheila E, and more. Today we get up to date with the establishment of Escovedo's Latin Jazz Orchestra, some of the Bay Area musicians that passed through his group, the Bay Area sound, and more.
LATIN JAZZ CORNER: In the early eighties, you put your own group together and recorded The Island. That's the one album of yours that I've never heard--who was involved at that time and how'd you put that group together?
PETE ESCOVEDO: That was put out just by me and a friend of mine who actually helped me finanace the whole project. We just decided, Hey, we can't get a record deal with the stuff that we're playing, so why don't we just start our own company?" We formed EsGo Records, and that's when we did The Island. We only printed up 1,000 albums, so they're very hard to come by. After we did that, we decided to do another one, Yesterday's Memories--Tomorrow's Dreams which we recorded live at Mills College.
Then a great thing that happened with that. When Tito Puente was recording for Concord, I went over to see him. In fact, I think I recorded; I was on one of the CDs with him. At that time, Carl Jefferson was the owner of that label, Concord Records. He asked me What are you doing?" I said, Well, you know, I'm trying to get my stuff off the ground. I have these two albums, and the last one I did was Yesterday's Memories--Tomorrow's Dreams." So he said, Why don't you bring it over to the office?" I went over to Concord, took Yesterday's Memories--Tomorrow's Dreams over there and he loved it. He said, I'd like to offer you a deal to sign with Concord." So I did and Yesterday's Memories--Tomorrow's Dreams was the first release. They took it over and it was great, because they printed it on that red vinyl, like they used to do at Fantasy and Concord. That's actually how I got my deal with Concord Records.
LJC: You stayed with Concord Records for a long time after that . . .
LJC: At that point, who was in the band--anybody who's still around with you today?
PE: Well, I used mostly all the guys from the Bay Area--Wayne Wallace, Ray Obiedo, Richard Kermode, Murray Low, Rebecca Mauleon . . . I used a lot of different people. David Belove on bass. Marc Van Wageningen, Paul Van Wageningen, the brothers; I used those guys. For horn players, I used a lot of different guys all the time. But you know, it was very enjoyable, because by then, the kids were playing, so I used all the kids on percussion and Sheila on drums. It varied with different people, but most everybody was from the Bay Area.
LJC: A lot of the people that played with you at the time are making their own statements now, so I wanted to ask you about a few of them, starting with Wayne Wallace . . .
PE: Wayne was with me for many, many years. He was a very important part of the sound of the band today and what it has become. A lot of the music that he wrote and arranged for the band, I still play today. Ray Obiedo was also another important part of the band with his ideas and his music. For a lot of the stuff that I played, those guys were really the two most influential people that took part in the band. I did have other people write stuff. Having Rebecca Mauleon, John Santos, and that side of it was very rewarding also.
You know what? I really have to say that, to me, that's probably the most enjoyable thing about having my own orchestra. The people that have come in to play with me when they were young are now out on their own, doing their own thing. I'm so proud of them. What a joy for me to see those people succeed. I always like to say that my band is kind of like going to college. When you graduate, you can go on and do whatever you want. Once you get your diploma, you can go onto bigger and better things. They sure have. But they came into the band, they got that education, and they're doing great. I'm very proud of all of them.
LJC: One of the things that I notice listening to a lot of these guys, there is definitly a Bay Area Latin Jazz sound, which you played such a big part in defining. What is the Bay Area sound to you?
PE: Like I mentioned before, there were so many different styles of music going through the Bay Area. For some reason, all of that stuff stayed with us. That comes out in the stuff that we're doing today. Back East, they really learned a way of playing the music. They had the most of it as far as the Latin side, with a Cuban, Puerto Rican, and New York way of playing. That's the difference from what we do on the West and what they do on the East. There's a big difference, and I think it really shows. If you really know the music well, you can tell the difference between East Coast Latin Jazz and West Coast Latin Jazz. It's a whole complete different style. That's because, like I said, we were more fed with all of these different styles of music. We grew up with it, and a lot of it stayed within us, and it's come out in our writing rather than the really straight-ahead stuff that comes from back East. A good example of that is The Fort Apache Band or Ray Barretto--those people that really played that real Latin Jazz stuff, there's no one in the Bay Area that plays like that. It's a whole different thing. There are bands like John Santos' Machete Ensemble, Wayne's band, and a lot of the other groups that have a style similar, but it's not the same thing as those guys do back East.
LJC: You had a lot of success in the late eighties and early nineties with your Concord Records and then in 2000, starting on E Music, you started using more guys from Los Angeles, where you eventually moved--how did you hook up with those guys and how did you eventually move down there?
PE: When I came here, I actually didn't know what I was going to do! It was a big move from the Bay Area to L.A. I never thought in all my years that I would move to Los Angeles. But Sheila was here, my son Peter Michael was here, my grandkids and great grandkids were here--we decided to be closer to the family. So we moved here. I said, Well, let me see. How am I going to do this? I guess the best way is to find guys here (in Los Angeles) to play with. In order to do that, it would be great just to do a CD with the guys here." So I called people, got names of the guys that were the guys. Naturally, I got Justo Almario, Arturo Velasco, Ramon Flores, Joe Rotundi, Oskar Cartaya . . . I mean, I got very lucky with getting the best guys here to do Latin Jazz. I called all those guys for the record, used all of them, and I just had a great time playing with these guys. So basically, this is the band that I have in L.A. I trim it down too, because sometimes I bring guys from L.A. to the Bay Area. Sometimes I'll bring guys from the Bay Area to L.A. The mixture of both personel within the band has made it even more interesting. When you have different musicians, you can play the same songs, but it takes on a whole other personality. So the songs don't get stale; they actually become fresh all the time because of the different people playing them. It opens the doors for me, because I really enjoy that. To keep everything fresh rather than get so stale that you're just tired of playing the same songs. At the same time, they take on a whole different personality.
LJC: A few years ago, you reunited with a lot of the members of Azteca, and you did a concert which turned into the concert DVD La Piedra del Sol and live album From the Ruins. How did that come together?
PE: We met this young guy, Daniel, who was interested in doing a DVD of the band. He came to me with the idea. He had called up a lot of the members of the old Azteca band and I told him, You know what? Most of the guys have passed away or they retired. There's not too many people left. I don't even know if they want to get together. We haven't played together in over thirty years!" So he said, Well, it would be a great thing to have." I said, Yea, it would be great to have. If you can pull it together, I'm there." So he did all the work of calling everybody. The ones that wanted to do it came in, but a lot of them that didn't want to do it didn't come it. We didn't have everybody, we had a few. We decided to rehearse and do the show at The Key Club in L.A., film the thing and everything--record it. So we did. Personally, for me, the live show didn't come out as good as I wanted it to be. The video is interesting because they interviewed everybody, got their impressions, the whole idea of what the band was, and what it meant to them. So it's something that is very close to my heart to keep and to have, so that another generation can see that and know what that band was about. But unfortunately, the sad part is that we didn't have everybody. Then we did another one in the Bay Area and even at that one, we were missing some of the people.
LJC: You've mentioned your brother Coke, a lot, who was an important part of that scene. What musical memories do you have of him and how would you describe him?
PE: He had great, great ideas and a great vision of what the music should be. He was really one of those guys that set a standard for, not only the way that he played, but his ideas about music. He really took a lot of chances in forming the Azteca band and trying to deal with how people would respond to the ideas of the band and what he did with Mercury and stuff like that. It's just too bad that he couldn't hang on to the ups and downs of the music business. It got to him and eventually, it got to be too much for him that he sought other ways to cope with the frustration of it. Those are the ways that are not going to do you good mentally, your health, or anything else. That was his downfall. That's what happens to a lot of great musicians that can't deal with the business part of the music industry. The business part is very difficult and you've got to be able to cope with the ups and downs because there's so many times when things don't go right for you. It's always a struggle. Even for the people that make it to be very big. Financially you might make it, but then what happens to your ideas. This one record might sell and then the other one doesn't sell. You know what I mean? There's a whole lot of ups and downs to the whole business. Whether you can put up with it or not, you've got to be strong minded.
LJC: Any new albums coming up in the future?
PE: Well, we still have the family CD that we're trying to get out. We're hoping that Concord will buy it and put it out, we're just waiting for the word on that. As far as my own thing, it's so hard to get record companies to take an interest in Latin Jazz and that's why a lot of guys are doing their own thing. I probably will be doing another one, hopefully soon. It's in the future, hopefully we'll do one more.
LJC: I saw you play last year at The San Jose Jazz Festival and that was not too long after your 74th birthday--you were playing very strong, you're showing no signs of stopping . . .
PE: You should have seen me after the gig though! I've been very blessed and very fortunate. I work at trying to keep my health together so I can last in this business. Now, turning 75, it takes a wear and tear on me. The traveling is tough, two shows a night is tough, but I try to hang in there. The fact that when I have the kids with me, it makes it a little easier for me. Sometimes, when we get into our solos, each one of them is making a statement, and they're telling me, O.K., let's see what you can do!" That's what we do to each other--O.K., how about this--show me what you can do! So I have to be up on my game, believe me, it's a struggle keeping up with the kids. I feel good and my health is good, thank god. So I'll just keep trying to maintain and keep going as long as I can. When the day comes that I feel I can't do it anymore or my playing gets really sloppy and bad and I can't keep up, that's the time to stop. I hope that never comes, but I know someday it will. Like an athlete who gets to the point that's like, Well, I can't do it no more." I know that someday I'll reach that point, but I'm going to keep going as much as I can.
Don't miss Part One of our interview with Pete Escovedo, where we look back on how it all began. We talk about Escovedo's early exposure to music in the Bay Area, his first steps into percussion, his work on the Bay Area scene during the fifties, the formation of The Escovedo Brothers, and more. Check it out HERE.
Check out Part Two of our interview with Pete Escovedo and take a look at his dips into Latin Rock and jazz fusion. We discuss Escovedo's time with Santana, the formation of Azteca, his fusion recordings with drummer Billy Cobham, his collaborations with his daughter Sheila, and more. You can find it HERE.